Shane Gray provides special Rams commentaries on 101sports.com. Follow him on Twitter @ShaneGmoSTLRams.
A season ago, the St. Louis Rams and Denver Broncos each posted 52 sacks to lead the NFL in the aforementioned category.
The Rams accomplished this feat in spite of the fact that they faced the challenge of implementing a new defense after abandoning the Steve Spagnuolo scheme in favor of the more consistent and balanced system long utilized by St. Louis head coach Jeff Fisher.
In 2012, the Rams elevated their sack total by 25 percent after posting 39 in the prior campaign. In fact, St. Louis’ 52 sacks were the most by any Rams team since 1999 – a year in which 57 were amassed.
Impressively, last season’s sack total was the league’s 11th-best since 2000. To put the 52 sacks into further perspective, the number would have led the NFL in seven of this century’s first 13 seasons.
What is most encouraging about last season’s mark is that these lofty numbers were not largely compiled by almost over-the-hill veterans or by defenders who departed in the offseason. No, they were posted by young players who will return hungry for more – much more. They were accomplished by players who were still ascending and/or just entering their prime (Chris Long, William Hayes, Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Eugene Sims), were just beginning to realize their potential (the then-22-year-old Robert Quinn), had made an offseason position switch (Kendall Langford) or were in their rookie year and battling through injury (Michael Brockers).
Take, for instance, the 23-year-old defensive end Quinn, who told me the following during camp last year.
“I want to try to help my team win as much as possible and dominate as an individual and help my D-line and defense dominate, too.”
If all of the above isn’t enough to breed optimism and have Rams fans licking their lips in anticipation of even higher sack totals, please recall that the Rams also added outside linebacker Alec Ogletree in the draft’s first round. The speedy, explosive Ogletree will almost certainly tally more than the 1.5 sacks that the since-departed duo of Rocky McIntosh and Mario Haggan produced at strong-side linebacker a season ago.
In short, there are several pieces of evidence that support the idea that the Rams can inflate their team sack total in 2013 – and perhaps surpass it by a significant margin:
-Although the Rams will have a new defensive coordinator in Tim Walton, he will maintain continuity by retaining much of the defense that was incorporated a season ago. Walton is a product of the Jeff Fisher coaching tree and was raised under Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz, a former Fisher defensive coordinator in Nashville with the Tennessee Titans. This should allow Rams players – who were still getting comfortable with new scheme a year ago and thinking rather than reacting early in the season – to play quicker and faster this fall.
-St. Louis played a lot of off coverage a season ago, perhaps due to the fact that the team was starting a rookie cornerback (Janoris Jenkins), playing another rookie corner (Trumaine Johnson), was suspect at safety (the Rams started Craig Dahl, after all) and was implementing a new defense without its anticipated defensive coordinator and play-caller around (the then-suspended and since-departed Gregg Williams.)
This year, the defense is expected to use more press coverage and generally play tighter at corner, something that should diminish the frequency of the far-too-many easily completed short passes we witnessed last season. This should give St. Louis pass rushers more legitimate opportunities to reach opposing quarterbacks.
Furthermore, if the Rams coaching staff ends up feeling more confident in the defensive backfield, it is possible the team will dial up a few more blitzes. This, too, would give the front seven added opportunities to notch more sacks.
-As touched on above, all of the Rams’ key pass rushers are either in their prime or still ascending. Few teams can make such a claim, and even if they do, they probably do not house the pass-rush skill and talent that Rams Park does. With that established, there is no reason why several individuals cannot secure more sacks than they did a season ago. If so, team totals will inevitably go up.
Chris Long, for example, is one of several defenders capable of bringing down more QBs than he did a season ago.
Long, who posted 11.5 sacks a year ago after securing 13 in 2011, is just 28. At defensive end – unlike a position like running back – many of the top pass rushers continue to improve to and beyond the age of 30, as we have seen repeatedly from guys like Jared Allen, Reggie White, Bruce Smith and others. Considering Long’s work ethic, there is no reason that he too should not continue to ascend.
Long has continued to add to his arsenal. For instance, he exhibited the ability to stand up pre-snap and rush the passer late last season. Long seemed comfortable and was successful when doing so, and this should aid him in becoming a better, more efficient pass rusher. According to profootballfocus.com, Long has led the league in quarterback hurries for three consecutive seasons. Could standing on third-and-long give him that split second needed to help turn dozens and dozens of hurries into a handful of additional sacks? I believe it could.
Since 2000, the highest single-season collection of team sacks came from the New Orleans Saints, who racked up 66 in the century’s first season.
If St. Louis were to secure one more sack per contest than that of a season ago, they would gather 68 and set a new standard for 21st-century sacks. If they were to average a sack and a half more per content than that of 2012, they would better the Chicago Bears’ single-season record of 72 sacks. (The Rams’ Fisher, by the way, was a defensive back on that squad.)
When looking at the considerable overall talent level and proven pass rush ability of the starting defensive line, the remarkable returning depth and sack production from its backup defensive ends (Hayes and Sims), the impressive group that comprises the front seven and the potential for upped numbers by a multitude of individuals, there is little reason to expect St. Louis to fail to again challenge for the league lead in sacks while potentially challenging for this century’s best sack total to date.
While doing so, St. Louis might have an outside shot at the all-time mark, something highly unlikely but certainly not impossible for a team boasting the skill, talent, depth, speed, athleticism, explosiveness, youth and aggression that this defense possesses.
After all, former CBS Sports reporter Ron Clements reported last year that Fisher had challenged his young Rams to break the Bears’ single-season sack mark. If that goal was set by Fisher when his defenders were brand new to his system and a year less experienced than they are now, one can bet his or her bottom dollar that a similar challenge is being issued heading into 2013.
This year, however, a goal like the all-time sack record doesn’t seem quite as far-fetched.